The Politics Of Poison: Have Personal Attacks Gone Too Far?

Democrats started it, hoping that spotlighting the "sleaze factor" would slow the Reagan Revolution. Republicans perfected it when Newt Gingrich brought down a House Speaker and other Hill barons with devastating assaults on "corrupt Democratic machine politicians." Now, both sides are bogged down in an ethics swamp that is building public disgust for politics.

Rarely has the U.S. political system been so poisoned by bitter attacks on officials' professional ethics and personal morality. The aim of this new blood sport is to destroy a political agenda by tearing down the proponent's integrity. Although no one is calling for looser ethical standards, some fear that the frenzied character-slamming has adverse consequences: Qualified candidates are shunning public service, revenge is superseding bipartisanship, and voters may be lured to third parties. "Part of the revulsion with government is the belief that there's nothing but corruption in Washington," says Suzanne Garment of the American Enterprise Institute.

For now, Bill Clinton is in the deepest muck. His effectiveness has been hurt by the Whitewater affair and womanizing allegations. And for a pro-reform Administration, the list of officials in ethical scrapes is growing: On Mar. 14, the Justice Dept. asked for a special prosecutor to investigate Housing & Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros over whether he lied to the FBI about payments to his ex-mistress. Meanwhile, Hill Republicans want an independent counsel to poke into Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's murky finances. And Mike Espy was recently forced to resign as Agriculture Secretary amid allegations that he accepted improper gifts.

While in the minority, Republicans turned such mud-slinging into effective political weapons. But now that it rules the Hill, the GOP is attracting similar ethics broadsides. House Speaker Gingrich has been put on the defensive by his grab-and-run book deal, charges that he intervened with lawmakers on behalf of corporate benefactors, and complaints that he lied by labeling his college course as nonpartisan. Democrats have filed four ethics complaints against Gingrich.

PILEUP. Democrats also allege that Texas Senator Phil Gramm violated federal campaign-financing rules when he headed the GOP's Senatorial campaign committee. Representative Joseph M. McDade (R-Pa.) is facing trial on influence-peddling charges. And sexual-harassment complaints still hang over Senator Bob Packwood (R-Ore.)

Character assassination is nothing new in Washington. What's new is the vehemence of the assaults and the willingness to turn ideological disputes into personal feuds. "The goal now is to discredit individuals rather than block their programs," laments Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker.

Even worse, this political mau-mauing is deterring qualified candidates from joining government. A recent example is Retired Air Force General Michael P.C. Carns' withdrawal on Mar. 10 as Clinton's nominee for CIA Director. Carns' sin: a pay-and-immigration dispute involving a former domestic employee.

Individuals interested in public service are growing ever more reluctant to put themselves and their families through the ethics meat grinder. Indeed, associates of former HUD Secretary Jack F. Kemp say one reason he nixed a Presidential run was fear of having his personal life scrutinized in '96.

Will anyone call a truce? Not likely, as long as both sides are drawing blood. With momentous debates looming over the role and cost of government, Republicans and Democrats certainly have passionate differences to resolve. But they're too busy throwing ethical spitballs at each other to bother.

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